What does George Michael have in common with the Holden Barina? Hmm, it’s a question that’s long burned in the back of your minds, I know. Cast your mind back to 1985. The Republicans were in power, Dynasty dominated TV and dictated shoulder pad height and George Michael was hot with hits like Last Christmas.

Holden was riding high too with its new baby car called the Barina. Made in Japan by affiliate Suzuki, its boisterous performance, airy cabin, exceptional frugality and city-friendly manoeuvrability won it critical and commercial success. And around the time George was queen with his Faith album and tour, the second-generation Barina continued to be king.

But by the mid-1990s things had turned a little sour for both. George had been battling with record labels and personal demons. Meanwhile the Barina had become rubbish as Holden switched to sourcing it from a Spanish Opel that was poor in quality and dreary to drive. Consequently both 80s icons saw their popularity slip alarmingly.

However, Holden’s luck turned with the current 2001 XC Barina. A complete redesign from rubber to roof, it evoked a response from critics and buyers alike, revitalising Barina’s sales and reputation. It was even Car of the Year.

But as George now knows all too well, fashion is fickle and progress stops for no one. Three years down the track and the Barina has had to battle brilliant fresh babies like the Honda Jazz, Mazda 2 and Ford’s dynamic new Fiesta.

With sales dropping 50 percent, something had to be done. So Holden is hitting back with the botoxed Barina, boasting a new engine, cosmetic changes and a cheaper price tag. Stylistically there’s a new chrome grille, colour-coded bumpers, door handles, mirrors and side rubber strips, smoked taillights and new hues.

The heart of the 2004 change is a new 1.4-litre Twinport four-cylinder engine in the base model three- and five-door. It produces the same amount of power (66kW), but at lower revs than before.

You certainly can feel the extra sparkle down low.

Acceleration is very lively for a 1.4, and it maintains its speed with ease. It’s also more economical. But it requires more use of the notchy five-speed manual gearshift and lumpy clutch.

The ride is a bit on the firm side, with uneven city streets undermining its role as a comfy urban runabout. You’d sum up the handling as absolutely safe and benign, with responsive though feel-free steering and an agreeable amount of grip. The brakes are also on the ball, with improved pedal effort during hard braking. However, no anti-lock availability is disappointing. And Holden has deleted the anti-whiplash headrests for regular ones. At least it’s reassuring that the pedals still have the breakaway function for much-reduced foot and lower-leg injury.

Inside, the Barina makes a much stronger case for itself. Even taller adults can spread their legs up front, with equally accommodating headroom and shoulder room. But longer trips betray the seat’s flatness. Rear seat passengers also have it good room-wise, with an acceptable amount of comfort and support. A full-sized bicycle minus the front wheels can easily be made to fit. Current Barina owners will also spot the classy new charcoal trim, swish metallic centre console and instrumentation surrounds.

In the end the XC MY04 seems to have fallen into the middle of the pack. While preferable to the Kia Rio, the Barina is now level-pegged with Hyundai’s Getz and ageing Toyota Echo. But the new-generation tiny tots are still easily and effortlessly showing the way, and against the Jazz, Fiesta and 2, the Barina is also starting to show its age.

Just as George is still out there producing slick, easy-listening and populist tunes, Holden is doing the same with the Barina. Drive one without prejudice, but just know there’s better talent out there.

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